Bear with me for a moment as I briefly recount two recent and ongoing attacks on public education.
In November 2012, Governor Scott Walker opened his attack on his state’s historically excellent public university system. In a much commented upon interview, Walker borrowed language from the misguided Common Core project in grade school education:
We’re going to tie our funding in our technical colleges and our University of Wisconsin System into performance and say, if you want money, we need you to perform. In higher education, that means not only degrees, but are young people getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today — not just the jobs that the universities want to give us, or degrees that people want to give us.
Last month, Walker appeared to double down on his attack on public education, arguing in his budget proposal that the mission of the state universities should be “to meet the state’s work-force needs,” aiming to substantially cut the public university budget and eliminate many of its traditional claims about the inherent value in a challenging and diverse college education.
The attacks on the UNC system have been even more insidious than those being perpetrated by Walker in Wisconsin. Governor Pat McCrory echoed Walker’s rhetoric—and added a new layer—when he explicitly described his state’s public universities as a home for an “educational elite” that offers “no chances of getting people jobs.” McCrory singled out a couple of areas of study for particular attack—gender studies and Swahili—and asserted (without evidence, relying on the apparently intuitive nature of the claims) that such areas are not productive for graduates and have no place in public education: “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine. Go to a private school, and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” Dropping some of the veiled and circuitous tactics of Gov. Walker, McCrory made plain that he wants to ensure that the state’s public universities are not “indoctrinating” students. Education should be a process of acquiring particular useful skills, not a process of learning and thinking.
Gaye, Thicke, and Williams
I recently criticized Harvard professor Ingrid Monson for her participation in the copyright lawsuit brought by Marvin Gaye’s family against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. In my critique, I suggested that the legal terms of a musical copyright case are incompatible with the actual work done by musicologists, the latter of which relies on historical evidence, cultural contexts, and arguments about how music is a social object. The unfortunate aspect of the Gaye/Thicke/Williams trial, I believe, is that the law is singularly incapable of (and uninterested in) the richer cultural context of music production. The only relevant evidence is a pseudo-scientific question of whether the notes in one piece are similar enough to the notes in another—the kind of evidence that is offered by the rather nebulous field of “forensic musicology” but which generally reflects little of the work done by musicologists working today. Thus, by participating in a trial where the only relevant question was going to be about whether or not “Blurred Lines” copied “Got to Give It Up”—and only a yes-or-no answer would be accepted—Monson misrepresented (and thus devalued and cheapened) the work of musicologists in general.
What I realized only in talking to some friends about my argument is that I neglected to elaborate on a fundamental element of the argument: the interconnected questions of “who cares” and “so what.” I would like to address these questions now.
The Value of Education
In his recent analysis of the conservative attack on North Carolina’s public universities, Jedediah Purdy perceptively suggests that such efforts are a blatant attempt to “reform” education in a way that discourages the teaching of subjects that are unfavorable to a right-wing agenda. Purdy notes that conservatives have realized that funding political candidates delivers mixed electoral results, at best. But investing in a remaking of higher education has the potential to dramatically transform the American electorate.
This is a point on which I whole-heartedly agree with McCrory, Art Pope, and their ilk: college education is a potentially transformative experience that will in many ways shape how young adults perceive and engage with the world around them. Thus, the people who are in charge of higher education policies—which is increasingly the same as those who fund higher education—are uniquely situated to control the kinds of values that are conveyed through the college experience.
And thus, why the current “reform” of public universities is so potentially disastrous: in packaging their educational policies in the cloak of false populism—the notion that colleges will better position graduates to get jobs based on the skills the college teaches—conservative education policy threatens to dismantle the notion of intellectual freedom that must lie at education’s core for it to have any merit at all.
McCrory suggested that someone who wants to take courses in gender studies (this was actually his specific example) could go to a private college, but that they should not be “subsidized” by taxpayers. In so saying, he revealed the true motive behind his move to transform North Carolina’s public universities: exacerbating class inequalities under the cover of making college education more “valuable” (in a literal economic sense of the term). Even if we accept that a college can anticipate and train students for real jobs that they can take upon graduation—and as Benjamin Rifkin points out, this is almost certainly not true—the distinction he sees between private and public colleges and universities indicates that the wants a society that is stratified between “elites” who can afford to attend intellectually rigorous private colleges and an underclass who gets a technical education. In other words, in McCrory’s world, the people whose education is “subsidized” by “taxpayers” are only permitted to get enough education to be functional cogs, while the rich and privileged can continue to play in their private sandboxes.
Particularly at risk are those “irrelevant” areas of the Humanities: gender studies, say, or Swahili, or (ahem) musicology. Those of us who teach in the Humanities are increasingly being asked to justify our existence within the academy, and often through quantitative means that are fundamentally at odds with the values of independent critical thought and analysis that lie at the heart of Humanities fields. (To me, this sounds like nothing so much as the solipsistic new ways of evaluating teachers in public grade schools: narrow, quantitative, and ultimately circular analyses of teacher success that in fact reflect nothing of what or how students actually are learning.)
The Value of Musicology
Musicology, like many academic disciplines, engages with mainstream public debates only sporadically, and consequently, the idea of “musicological expertise” is not a concept that has much (if any) broad public meaning. This situation was adequate (if not wholly acceptable) in a time when the academy was generally permitted to function on its own terms. But with the sorts of attacks mounted by Walker and McCrory (and their financial puppet masters )on public universities, we simply cannot afford to ignore the looming threat to our fields of inquiry and education. The future of public education is still being contested, but if the conservative “reformers” have their way, we are facing a bleak future: less tenure, less academic freedom, less job security; and more adjunct positions that are always contingent and can be eliminated on the whim of low-level administrators. In short, curtailing the broad availability of musical knowledge.
To a broad public, the loss of a field like musicology will probably seem insignificant. People are generally quite happy to concede that as a society, we do need music; but it’s not immediately obvious why we would also need the sort of metaknowledge of a field like musicology. If this is the case, it’s because we perhaps have not been clear enough with ourselves about what we do, and we certainly have not been consistently good at articulating what we do publicly. It’s time for that to change—if not because we really believe in the value of engaging with the public, at least because it’s increasingly apparent that musicology (along with other disciplines) is facing a sustained and serious attack on the issue of its relevance.
The good news is that we, as a discipline, are more than capable of fighting back against the attacks on our intellectual worth. Ethnomusicologists are often quite good at this. We have an “Applied Ethnomusicology” section in the Society for Ethnomusicology; the title of this post is a repurposing of an important article by one of my academic mentors, in which he reflected (far more convincingly and eloquently than me, of course!) on some of these same questions; and ethnomusicologists are often engaged (directly and indirectly) in musical responses to events and issues of social justice.
Still, we collectively have blind spots about the value of our field. Our work as intellectuals and researchers is only as valuable as we make it. Some ways of demonstrating value are noted in the previous paragraph, but the one major place where our academic work has value is in our teaching. The questions we ask of our students encourage them to see themselves not as mere consumers of music, but rather as agents, active participants in a political and social sphere where critical engagement often seems the only antidote to the dehumanizing onslaught of late capitalism. What students do with their critical thought skills is up to them; we’re just asking questions. But those questions are valuable and important, and quite obviously, they have no place in the conservative reimagining and evaluation of public education.
Here, then, is why I take such issue with Ingrid Monson’s participation in the Gaye-Thicke-Williams trial. As I’ve noted before, I know nothing of Monson’s motivations for taking part. But it should have been immediately obvious that the sorts of expertise that is valued within the field of ethnomusicology would play no part in the pseudo-scientific playing field laid out by the current practice of copyright law, and, wittingly or not, Monson played right into the hands of the attacks on education. This trial represented the most public attention that musicology has received in recent memory, and the take-away was that we are concerned with similarities between small groups of pitches. In contrast, many commentators complained that you can’t copyright a “groove”—an issue on which ethnomusicology surely has much to say, given the opportunity.
In my previous commentary on this issue, I suggested that Monson has an obligation to the field of musicology, and that she betrayed her obligation through her participation in the trial. I stand by that assertion, particularly because it’s quite obvious that Monson and other senior scholars are not going to be the ones who pay for this public devaluing of musicology. Those of us without tenure or without a job; we who are still trying to establish ourselves in the field of musicology, and want there to be a field left for us to work within—we are the ones who will pay the price if we as a group don’t change the terms of the conversation that we’re having about our relevance and value.
Correction: In the first version of this post, I stupidly called the Marvin Gaye song in question “Got to Get It On.” The text has been changed to include the real name of the song, “Got to Give It Up.”